On the night before Jesus died he instructed his followers to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine together. They have done so ever since. For the first few years this took place in the context of a full meal eaten together, often on a Sunday. In order to make it a dignified occasion, prayers were introduced. Over time, the number of prayers increased and the amount of food decreased. In most churches the act of worship now involves consuming a very small amount of bread and wine, within a longer service of praise and seeking forgiveness.
In different places this is known as holy communion, mass (the term used in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches), eucharist (meaning thanksgiving), the breaking of bread, or the Lord’s supper. Bread is broken and distributed, and wine is poured out and shared. Although the way the symbols are understood varies and sometimes divides people, bread and wine remain the most compelling reminders of the love of God, as empty hands are held out and have food placed in them.
Water is used to welcome a new believer into the church. As a symbol it has two powerful associations. It is a sign of sin being washed away (a clean start with God symbolised by water being poured over someone’s head). And it is a sign of death, with the old life drowned and the new life rising to start again with God (seen most clearly when a baptised person is immersed completely in water).
The New Testament records many baptisms. Some were of adults and some of whole families, including children. Some were outdoors in rivers (in which the new Christian was submerged) and some were indoors using water probably from storage jars (presumably involving water being poured).
Just as the practices in the Bible varied, so do practices in today’s churches. Most churches baptise infants whose parents intend them to grow as Christians from the day they are born. In these circumstances the endless love of God is stressed, even to someone who cannot yet understand its significance. Parents and godparents (friends who are committed to nurturing the child in the Christian faith) make promises to follow Jesus. They pray that the child will later make those vows himself or herself as an adult at a service called confirmation. Water is usually poured over the child’s head (although in Orthodox Churches the baby is immersed in the water). The service is also sometimes known as christening.
In other churches (such as Baptist or Pentecostal churches) babies are welcomed into life with a service of thanksgiving and dedication. Baptism is reserved for adults who are old enough to make their own informed decision to be a follower of Jesus. In this case it is the personal choice of a man or woman that is being emphasised. Usually this involves immersion in a small pool in the church building. In the developing world a river is often used.
There are many different practices and churches for the most part respect each others’ ways. Salvation Army and Quaker (Society of Friends) churches do not feature either communion or baptism. Quakers try to make every meal have qualities of worship, and the Salvation Army has its own moments rich with meaning, emphasising that the need to experience God’s love is more important than the need for rituals.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
This took place during meal to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, immediately before Jesus was arrested and tried.
And they said…
Buzz Aldrin, second astronaut to set foot on the moon:
I unstowed the elements in their flight packets. I put them and the scripture reading on the little table in front of the abort guidance-system computer. Then I called Houston: ‘Houston, this is Eagle … I would like to request a few moments’ silence. I would like to invite each person listening in to contemplate for a few moments the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.’
For me, this meant taking communion. In the blackout I opened the little plastic packages which contained bread and wine. I poured wine into the chalice my parish had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever to be poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were consecrated elements.
From The Didache, a book of instructions about Christian behaviour written in about 100:
Baptise thus: Having recited all these things, say, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ Use running water. If you have no running water, use other water. If you cannot baptise in cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water on the head three times.